12 October 2016

CD REVIEW: Louis-Ferdinand Hérold — LE PRÉ AUX CLERCS (M.-È. Munger, M. Lenormand, J. Crousaud, M. Spyres, É. Huchet, C. Helmer, C. González Toro, L. César, M. Rebelo, T. Batista, N. Fonseca; Ediciones Singulares ES 1025)

CD REVIEW: Louis-Ferdinand Hérold - LE PRÉ AUX CLERCS (Ediciones Singulares ES 1025)LOUIS-FERDINAND HÉROLD (1791 – 1833): Le pré aux clercsMarie-Ève Munger (Isabelle de Montal), Marie Lenormand (Marguerite de Valois), Jeanne Crousaud (Nicette), Michael Spyres (Baron de Mergy), Éric Huchet (Cantarelli), Christian Helmer (Girot), Emiliano González Toro (Comte de Comminges), Leandro César (Le brigadier), Manuel Rebelo (Un exempt du guet), Tiago Batista (Un archer), Nuno Fonseca (Un archer); Coro e Orquestra Gulbenkian; Paul McCreesh, conductor [Recorded in the Grande Auditório – Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal, 7 – 8 April 2015; Ediciones Singulares ES 1025; 2 CDs, 121:54; Available from NAXOS Direct, jpc (Germany), and major music retailers]

‘Two young girls, the Farival twins, were playing a duet from “Zampa” upon the piano.’ For more than a century, this line from Kate Chopin’s 1899 proto-feminist novel The Awakening and occasional performances of the spirited Overture from the same work were as close as anyone outside of France could hope to get to the music of Louis-Ferdinand Hérold. Born in 1791 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, now adjacent to but then just west of Paris, Hérold was a precocious child whose musical talents manifested themselves early on, and his enrollment at the world-famous Paris Conservatoire in 1806, when he was only fifteen years old, brought him into contact with some of the most revered musicians in France, including Charles Simon Catel, Rodolphe Kreutzer, and Étienne Méhul. Six years later, in 1812, Hérold garnered the prestigious Prix de Rome, and 1828 found him receiving the Légion d’honneur from the Bourbon court of Charles X. On 3 May 1831, these honors were supplemented by what is now often cited as the greatest prize of Hérold’s career: the première at Paris’s Opéra-Comique of his Zampa, the Overture from which has, along with the ballet La fille mal gardée, rescued Hérolds’ name from oblivion beyond France and Germany. Five weeks before the composer’s untimely death from the ravages of tuberculosis, his final completed opéra comique opened to acclaim even greater than that lavished on Zampa. First performed on 15 December 1832, Le pré aux clercs proved so popular that it was chosen to formally christen the Opéra-Comique’s new venue, the second theatre in Paris to answer to the name Salle Favart, in 1840, and within forty years of its première had amassed more than a thousand performances in Paris—double the number of performances that Zampa received in the French capital during the same period. Were they en vacances along the Côte d’Azur rather than Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, the Farival twins might well have serenaded Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier with music from Le pré aux clercs.

A setting of a libretto adapted by François-Antoine-Eugène de Planard from Prosper Mérimée’s 1829 novel La Chronique du temps de Charles IX, the action of Le pré aux clercs is situated against the backdrop of the 1572 Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy, a mass assassination, perhaps instigated by Catherine de’ Medici, of prominent Huguenots gathered in Paris to celebrate the wedding of the Valois King Charles IX’s sister Marguerite to the Calvinist-leaning future Henri IV, France’s first Bourbon monarch. The violence quickly expanded beyond Paris, becoming one of the bloodiest events in France’s religious struggles. Sharing this milieu with Meyerbeer’s vast Les Huguenots, Le pré aux clercs may seem on the surface to be a daftly light-hearted score, but de Planard and Hérold focused their attention on personal relationships rather than national politics. With his wealth of widely-lauded experience in Baroque repertory, especially Händel’s operas and oratorios, to his credit, British conductor Paul McCreesh approaches Hérold’s score with proven gifts for identifying and imparting drama on a scale that is unfailingly appropriate for the music. Under his direction, the Gulbenkian Foundation chorus and orchestra provide performances that fully substantiate the legitimacy of Le pré aux clerc’s popularity in the Nineteenth Century. As evidenced by the fine singing of members bass-baritone Leandro César as the Brigardier, bass Manuel Rebelo as the Exempt du guet, and bass Tiago Batista and tenor Nuno Fonseca as archers, the choristers are a strong presence in this performance, their sounds granting music and text the immediacy that the opera’s dramatic situations require. Whether in the Overture, the Entr’acte that introduces Act Two, or any of the opera’s scenes, the orchestra’s playing is also an integral component of the musical continuity that McCreesh succeeds in creating throughout the score’s three acts. The conductor’s mastery of a work like Händel’s Saul yields an appreciable comfort with the contrasts among Hérold’s intimate and epic scenes. Even in the opera’s dialogue, which is spoken by the cast with diction that ranges from acceptable to fluent, momentum never flags. Thanks for this is owed largely to McCreesh, whose innate musicality shapes a traversal of Le pré aux clercs that adventurously exposes the many felicities of Hérold’s well-written score to modern listeners’ discriminating ears.

Raising the curtain on Act One alongside the chorus with an aptly stirring account of ‘Ah! Quel beau jour de fête,’ the Girot of baritone Christian Helmer and Nicette of soprano Jeanne Crousaud, both benefiting from their portrayers’ native French, converse with dramatic specificity and solid, focused tones. The pair give a fine account of their duet, ‘Les rendez-vous de noble compagnie,’ Crousaud rising with minimal effort to Nicette’s top B♭s and Helmer partnering her with singing of flinty vigor.

Thrillingly bringing the ardent Baron de Mergy to life, American tenor Michael Spyres has only one aria in which to exhibit the easy swagger with which his voice and technique can ignite a performance, but he here proves no less incendiary in ensembles, his voice ringing with the fresh sparkle of a crystal goblet whether he is alone on stage or surrounded by the full cast. He traces the line in the recitative ‘Ce soir j’arrive donc’ imaginatively, and his vocalism in the lovely moderato aria ‘O ma tendre amie’ is elegant and beautifully-phrased. Spyres evokes the legacy of Nineteenth-Century French tenor singing by projecting the aria’s first top C with an authentic, gorgeously-managed voix mixte. The subsequent top B♭s and Cs that crown bursts of Rossinian fiorature, subtly and stylishly decorated by Spyres, are sung de la poitrine but equally attractively. Le pré aux clercs followed Rossini’s Guillaume Tell by less than three years, and Mergy’s music recalls Arnold’s ‘Asile héréditaire,’ music of which Spyres is one of today’s few wholly-qualified exponents. Hérold’s music mostly lacks the edge of brilliance obvious in Rossini’s, but Spyres’s singing supplies the dazzling technical marvels that his rôle demands.

In the ensemble that follows Mergy’s aria, ‘Allons! dressons la table!’, the sly Cantarelli of French lyric tenor Éric Huchet emerges with a stream of smooth, lean tone. One of the many relatives in Nineteenth-Century opera of Dandini in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, Cantarelli is always at the ready, a committedly willing participant in actions to further any cause in which he believes, and Huchet strengthens his depiction with consistently animated singing. In the act’s vivid finale, ‘À la Navarre,’ French mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand and Québécoise coloratura soprano Marie-Ève Munger as Maguerite de Valois and her companion Isabelle de WHAT encounter the stony-hearted Comte de Comminges of Swiss/Chilean tenor Emiliano González Toro. The unforced dignity that Lenormand brings to her embodiment of the distraught queen is not unexpected, this trait being such a crucial element of the singer’s artistry, but it is an unusual pleasure to hear the gossamer-voiced González Toro in a villainous rôle. Owing to the natural allure of his timbre, every line that the tenor utters emits an electric charge of insinuation, and his words convincingly unnerve Marguerite and Isabelle. Munger and Lenormand are ideally matched in their rôles, the former’s flights above the stave complemented by the reliable sturdiness of the latter’s lower register. Each member of the cast exerts her or his presence in the ensemble, ending the act with concerted singing of tremendous impact.

Spurred by the orchestra’s sophisticated playing of the Entr’acte, the first scene of Act Two establishes the atmosphere for a contemplative scene for Isabelle that is not unlike Meyerbeer’s scene for her mistress Marguerite de Valois in Act Two of Les Huguenots. Munger sings Isabelle’s aria ‘Jours de mon enfance’ entrancingly. The young soprano’s bravura capabilities are wonderful, but her voice shimmers most alluringly in lyrical passages, her singing of French nasalized vowels having none of the pinched quality that jeopardizes even some native speakers’ performances. In the trio with Marguerite and Cantarelli that follows, ‘Vous me disiez sans cesse,’ Munger sings with confidence, her character’s frightened innocence compellingly countered by Lenormand’s regal bearing and Huchet’s fortitude. The subsequent Masquerade is a scene of inventive dramatic thrust, realized here with abandon that McCreesh controls meticulously without seeming to do so. In the act’s bristling final scene, a few of Lenormand’s highest notes are effortful, but the blazing intensity of ‘Tout est dit’ and ‘Je suis prisonnière’ is heightened by the suggestion of strain. Here, too, McCreesh and the cast evince exciting spontaneity whilst exacting laudable precision and preparation, increasing the finale’s tension with music making of bracing efficacy.

The Gulbenkian choristers reaffirm their collective excellence with a mesmerizing account of ‘Que j’aime ces ombrages’ to start Act Three. Building upon this foundation, Crousaud voices Nicette’s ‘À la fleur du bel âge’ with assurance and histrionic involvement that astutely advances the opera’s plot towards its resolution. Spyres, Munger, and Lenormand collaborate in a fantastic performance of the best number in the score, the trio ‘C’en est fait!’ Spyres infuses Baron de Mergy’s lines with golden-toned Romanticism, his navigation of difficult jaunts through the passaggio winningly assured, and he seems to truly listen to the ladies, the colorations of his vocalism growing brighter as he fully absorbs that Mergy and Isabelle are to be united in safety. It is impossible to imagine Mergy’s music being sung better by any tenor past or present. There are foreshadows of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier in the benevolent Marguerite’s interventions on behalf of the young lovers, and the integrity of Lenormand’s vocal demeanor would be a credit to any portrayal of Strauss’s noble character. Lenormand’s singing in this performance harkens back to the bygone era in which French singers like Germaine Cernay, Solange Michel, and Suzanne Juyol conveyed great passion with vocalism of exquisite poise. Munger, on the other hand, is representative of a new species of singer, one in whose endeavors lessons of the past are integrated with the stylistic versatility and cinema-worthy acting expected of today’s singers. Hearing her Isabelle in this performance, it is no surprise that she is a noteworthy interpreter of Gounod’s Juliette, of whom the delicate Isabelle is a kinswoman. The opera’s finale, launched by a sonorous ‘Je frémis!’ and concluded by a jagged, then jubilant ‘Nargue de la folie,’ perfectly summarizes all that came before, both in Hérold’s score and in this performance of it: leaving nothing to chance, every voice and instrument is dedicated to making every word and note count, and the final tally amounts to a Le pré aux clercs that surprises and satisfies.

One of the continuing amazements of opera in the Twenty-First Century is the obscurity in which many rewarding scores slumber whilst other works, some far less deserving of attention, are revived with enthusiasm and even relative frequency. Perusing the performance diaries of European theatres and festivals, one might reasonably presume that virtually every opera composed between 1650 and 1750 is a masterpiece, so regularly are Baroque operas brought back to the stage. There are forgotten gems from every epoch of opera’s remarkable history, many of which were celebrated as extraordinary achievements when they were first performed, and there are also scores that can sound more accomplished than they can justifiably claim to be when performed especially well. Louis-Ferdinand Hérold’s Le pré aux clercs might rightfully answer to both of these descriptions. It is a score of undeniable quality, but the performance that it receives on the discs, handsomely presented by Ediciones Singulares and generously sponsored by Palazzetto Bru Zane, gives the opera a stamp of importance that makes it seem the equal of the finest of its contemporaries. If it is not quite that, the illusion is nevertheless fabulously fulfilling.

IN REVIEW: Tenor MICHAEL SPYRES (right) as Baron de Mergy in Louis-Ferdinand's LE PRÉ AUX CLERCS at the Opéra-Comique in 2015 [Photo by Pierre Grosbois, © by Opéra-Comique]Le bretteur à l'opéra: Tenor Michael Spyres (right) as Baron de Mergy in Louis-Ferdinand Hérold’s Le pré aux clers at Paris’s Opéra-Comique in 2015
[Photo by Pierre Grosbois, © by Opéra-Comique]

11 October 2016

CD REVIEW: DOLCE VITA (Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Sony Classical 88875183632)

CD REVIEW: DOLCE VITA (Sony Classical 88875183632)Dolce VitaJonas Kaufmann, tenor; Orchestra del Teatro Massimo di Palermo; Asher Fisch, conductor [Sony Classical 88875183632; 1 CD, 66:50; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

For those whose knowledge of Italian culture is defined by pasta and prohibitively-expensive shoes; those who have never seen the early-morning light creeping into Piazza di San Marco or watched the sun set over the cliffs of Sorrento; those who have never inhaled air heavy with aromas of freshly-pressed olives, just-sliced lemons, and truffles still damp with earth; for those for whom Italy is an irregular boot on a map, la dolce vita is perhaps nothing more than a poetic conceit or a 1960 Federico Fellini film seen on television during a sleepless night. Perhaps it is something genetic, something that those without Italian blood in their veins can observe and experience but never possess, a cultural essence as elusive as the answers to Turandot’s riddles. Like many of those aspects of life that are most difficult to translate into words, perhaps la dolce vita is an ever-changing spezzatino of the simplest ingredients: family dinners, hand-in-hand walks at twilight, Tuscan vistas, and the Amalfi sea air. The notion that Italians stroll through the streets of their towns great and small with operatic arias swelling their hearts and lungs is no more accurate than the cinematically-induced supposition that organized crime is a national pastime, but song is an integral part of Italy’s immortal mystique: ‘cambiano i suonatori,’ Italians say, ‘ma la musica è sempre quella.’ Dolce Vita, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann’s Sony Classical omaggio to the Italian spirit that has enthralled him since family holidays took him as a boy from his native Bavaria to the land of bel canto, is an affectionate survey of eighteen songs that epitomize the inimitable musical soul of bella Italia. La dolce vita is an ephemeral concept with different meanings for different people at different times, but hearing this disc can transport even the listener whose closest contact with Italy is the neighborhood pizzeria to the patria melodiosa of Pasta, Patti, Gigli, and Gobbi.

In the years since José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti redefined the commercial potential of tenor singing with their 1990 concert at the Terme di Caracalla, the recording of which launched the global Three Tenors phenomenon, Lucio Dalla’s ‘Caruso’ and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s ‘Mattinata’ have been two of the unofficial anthems of aggressively-marketed tenordom. Pavarotti absorbed ‘Caruso’ into his concert repertory very soon after its composition, and the song is now performed by tenors of every imaginable sub-Fach. Kaufmann sings the number affectionately but without overdoing the pathos, allowing the text to speak for itself without ruining his performance with syrupy pseudo-tragedy. Likewise, Kaufmann’s artistic shrewdness steers him clear of the temptation to sing ‘Mattinata’ as though it were a lost aria from Pagliacci. There is no lack of drama in his performance, but it is drama drawn from the song itself rather than imposed on it. Pacing these songs is hardly the equivalent of conducting Parsifal, but Israeli conductor Asher Fisch provides solid support in these and all of the selections on Dolce Vita, seconded by enthusiastic but sometimes rough-edged playing by the Orchestra del Teatro Massimo di Palermo.

No information about precisely where and when this disc was recorded is provided, but Kaufmann’s vocalism often sounds fatigued, especially in the near-relentless assaults on his upper register. A component of the tenor’s artistic magnetism is the thoughtfulness of his endeavors, however, and this is no empty-headed recital of sunny tunes. Kaufmann looks deeply though not necessarily critically into the texts and structures of these songs, and he honors Italy by highlighting the variety and skillfulness of purveyors of her popular song. Nino Rota was one of Italy’s—and the world’s—most significant Twentieth-Century tunesmiths, and his and lyricist Gianni Boncompagni’s ‘Parla più piano,’ known for its use in the film The Godfather, receives from Kaufmann a reading distinguished by subtlety and understatement. At his most emphatic, Kaufmann never stands in the way of the music. To his credit, he simply sings these songs rather than engaging in self-indulgent, pretentious ‘interpreting.’ ‘Passione,’ with music by Ernesto Tagliaferri and Nicola Valente and words by Libero Bovio, is especially effective here because Kaufmann focuses on the relationship between the words and the melodic line rather than on consciously striving to create a particular mood: this the songs does without manipulation, but not all singers are perceptive enough to notice. The same is true of ‘Un amore così grande,’ and Kaufmann devotes equal attention to the song’s music by Guido Maria Ferrilli and words by composer and Antonella Maggio. The dark timbre of his voice is often at odds with the bright patinas of this music, and though his good diction is not apt to be mistaken for that of a native speaker he intelligently puts the contrast between the wide-open emotions of a song like Romano Musumarra’s and Luca Barbarossa’s ‘Il canto’ and his opaque vowels to use as an expressive device.

​Giovanni d’Anzi’s and Tito Manlio’s ‘Voglio vivere così’ is dispatched by Kaufmann with gleaming tones, the lyrics enunciated with clarity. The charm of Salvatore Cardillo’s and Riccardo Cordiferro’s ‘Catari’, Catari’ (Core ’ngrato)’ finds an uninhibited outlet in the tenor’s traversal, the muscular sound of his voice giving the music a rhythmic spine that it lacks in many performances. The verve with which Kaufmann approaches each song is especially beneficial in his accounts of Ernesto de Curtis’s and Domenico Furnò’s ‘Ti voglio tanto bene’ and ‘Non ti scordar di me.’ A great-grandson of composer Saverio Mercadante, several of whose operatic rôles for tenor would be near-ideal fits for Kaufmann, De Curtis is one of the great songwriters of any era and nationality, and his music often seems to tap a vein that flows directly from the heart of Italy. Kaufmann cloaks ‘Ti voglio tanto bene’ in ardent yearning, and his bronzed sound makes the evergreen ‘Non ti scordar di me’ sound like a musical and situational cousin of Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne me quittes pas.’ With lyrics by Ernesto’s brother Giambattista de Curtis, ‘Torna a Surriento’ is another of the younger de Curtis’s finest achievements. Both brothers would undoubtedly be appreciative of this recording of their song, words and music given their due without the slightest suggestion of artifice.

Kaufmann sings the anonymous ‘Fenesta ca lucive’ incisively. As elsewhere on Dolce Vita, however, the results of his commendably straightforward endeavor are compromised to an extent by his toil. Still, no concerns complicate enjoyment of his voicing of Stanislao Gastaldon’s ‘Musica proibita’ and Cesare Andrea Bixio’s and Ennio Neri’s [presumably of no relation to the obsidian-voiced bass Giulio] ‘Parlami d’amore, Mariù.’ It is sometimes stated that Kaufmann, a singer with Verdi’s Manrico, Don Alvaro, Don Carlo, and now Radamès and Wagner’s Lohengrin, Walther von Stolzing, Siegmund, and Parsifal in his repertory, possesses an uncommonly large voice, but the strength that he commands is produced by projection, not amplitude or volume. The idea that big voices, powerful voices, and loud voices are identical and interchangeable is potentially ruinous for young singers, but Kaufmann is unusually astute in managing his resources according to the needs of his unique instrument, pushing histrionically but never vocally in his portrayals of characters like Puccini’s Cavaradossi and Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. In Domenico Modugno’s and Franco Migliacci’s ‘Volare,’ the singer’s voice soars above the picturesque landscape evoked by the orchestra. Kaufmann’s performance of Vincenzo de Crescenzo’s and Luigi Sica’s ‘Rondine al nido’ is one of the greatest joys of Dolce Vita. There is always a fascination in hearing serious artists take on ‘lighter’ repertory, but in the context of Dolce Vita it is Kaufmann’s seriousness, apparent in his sincerity of expression, that is the light that illuminates the beauties of these songs.

Familiarized throughout the world by singers like Sarah Brightman, Andrea Bocelli, and Josh Groban, Francesco Sartori’s and Lucio Quarantotto’s ‘opera pop’ hit ‘Con te partirò’ remains one of the highest-grossing songs in any genre owing in no small part to its chorus, a soaring melody with the visceral appeal of a Puccini aria. Though preferable to an effortful, belted climax, the falsetto ending here is a misjudgment, sounding oddly strained, but, with no disrespect to the ranks of its previous interpreters, hearing a voice of true substance in the song is most welcome. The Eros Ramazzotti-esque pop croon that Kaufmann adopts for the disc’s final track, Stephin Merritt’s and Zucchero’s ‘Il libro dell‘amore,’ is anything but the most attractive of the sounds that the tenor produces in the course of Dolce Vita, but his performance of the song is strangely beguiling. Sounding properly awed and perhaps slightly frightened by what the pages of this book of love contain, one of the world’s most celebrated singers is for a moment an awkward boy tasting love for the first time. Through the power of song, his voice becomes that of every earnest lover.

A nation’s cultural identity cannot be reduced to platitudes and soundbites. It is impossible even with avalanches of words to quantify the qualities that make one community’s way of life different from others’. So much time is wasted contemplating what separates us from one another when what truly matters, what gives misguided and mistrusting humanity hope, is facilitating and fostering connections that unite us. Perhaps Italy’s appeal extends so far beyond her borders and diaspora because her culture, so recognizable even when undefinable, is endearingly welcoming. Join an Italian family at table, and it no longer matters which nation’s arms grace one’s passport: to be invited is to be accepted and embraced, to be initiated into a culture that thrives on celebrations of life’s moments, good and bad. No disc can fully capture or convey the spirit of Italy, but in the sixty-seven minutes of Dolce Vita Jonas Kaufmann blends the sultry, sensual sounds of timeless Italy into a savory ragù that nourishes the senses. Dolce Vita is far from perfect, but so are Italy and those who love her. Viva le imperfezioni!

IN REVIEW: Tenor JONAS KAUFMANN [Photo by Julian Hargreaves, © by Sony Classical]La bella voce della dolce vita: Tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who celebrates the exuberant spirit of Italy on the Sony Classical recording Dolce Vita
[Photo by Julian Hargreaves, © by Sony Classical]

07 October 2016

BEST VOCAL RECITAL DISC OF 2016: Gustav Mahler, Antonín Dvořák, & Jean Sibelius — ALL WHO WANDER (Jamie Barton, mezzo-soprano; Brian Zeger, piano; Delos DE 3494)

BEST VOCAL RECITAL DISC OF 2016: ALL WHO WANDER (Delos DE 3494)GUSTAV MAHLER (1860 – 1911), ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841 – 1904), and JEAN SIBELIUS (1865 – 1957): All Who WanderJamie Barton, mezzo-soprano; Brian Zeger, piano [Recorded at SUNY Purchase, New York, USA, in August 2015; Delos DE 3494; 1 CD, 60:48; Available from Delos, NAXOS Direct, Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]

Adapting Mark Twain’s famous quip about the ruinous effects of a round of golf on a good walk, there unquestionably are people who would argue that an evening at the opera amounts to a symphonic performance spoiled by voices, and it must be admitted that there are also evenings at the opera that compel even the most diehard opera lovers to agree with that uncharitable sentiment. Opera was, is, and will forever be defined by voices; or, in the Twenty-First Century, it might be argued, by the lack of voices. In the incessant search for The Next Great Talent, opera is not unlike any other artistic—or not so artistic—genre, but there is the perception that in opera the stakes are higher, that the eminent prima donna is the peer of Meryl Streep and Dame Maggie Smith, not of Céline Dion and Dolly Parton. This, in essence, is both opera’s damnation and its salvation: potential audiences, particularly those whose hair is not yet silvered, can be alienated by the caviar-and-chandeliers atmosphere that persists in opera, but this can also be the critical component of convincing a potential buyer that a ticket to the opera is worth a hefty portion of a week’s wages. From Peri to Puts, opera has always been and must always be a spectacle, but when it looks better than it sounds the sacred fire tended by a long succession of dedicated artists is in danger of being extinguished. That flame has often seemed to sputter ominously in recent years, but the singing of Georgia-born mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton scatters rejuvenating sparks like the Santa Ana winds. With her début solo recital disc All Who Wander, this insightfully-conceived, expertly-engineered, and lovingly-presented Delos release, Barton crushes any doubts about her rôle as one of today’s vocal superheroes. If the flame flickers, deprived of the life-giving oxygen of great singing, her voice is the flint needed to rekindle the musical conflagration.

The deserving recipient [a distinction that cannot often be applied] of the 2014 Marian Anderson Award and the 2015 Richard Tucker Award, two of opera’s most coveted prizes, Barton has in recent seasons assumed a place among the sparsely-populated ranks of young singers who are fulfilling the promises of their early potential. With an operatic repertoire encompassing rôles as diverse as the male half of the title couple in Hasse’s Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra, Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma, and Fricka in Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, she is a musical cat inspired rather than killed by curiosity. In her journey on All Who Wander, she is accompanied by a like-minded fellow traveler, pianist Brian Zeger, a collaborative artist whose own musical curiosity has led him to a level of esteem among his peers that is rightly reserved for the best among them. Here, it is virtually impossible to identify Zeger’s playing of any one song as being markedly more refined than his performances of others. The exceptional nature of the interpretive synchronicity that he contributes to the disc is indicated by the fact that one might think that Barton is playing the piano—a robust-toned Steinway concert grand—herself. Zeger’s sensitivity to the most minute details of Barton’s interpretations of these songs contributes indelibly to the impression that, though she is even now only halfway through her fourth decade, she has lived with this material for many years. Greatly blessed is the singer who enjoys such an organic connection with her pianist in the setting of her first recording of art songs. Equally blessed is the listener who has the privilege of hearing the products of that connection.

Opening with Gustav Mahler’s Fünf Lieder nach Rückert, Barton and Zeger figuratively dive into the deep end. Composed in 1901 and 1902, the Rückert-Lieder are among Mahler’s best-known works, espoused by many of the most gifted Lieder singers of the past century, and their continued popularity owes much to the emotional spectrum that the frail but temperamental composer unfurled in the five songs. The order of the Lieder adopted by Barton is particularly effective, imaginatively traversing the common themes in the otherwise unrelated songs. Placing ‘Ich atmet' einen linden Duft’ first in the sequence provides an engagingly personal introduction, inviting the listener into the very private world of the Lieder. Barton’s luscious timbre and generous but well-controlled vibrato are ideally suited to Mahler’s late-Romantic idiom, and the security of her intonation prompts special appreciation of the harmonies, affirming that even if only by a year or two these pieces are irrefutably of the Twentieth Century. The verbal clarity that she brings to ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ illuminates Mahler’s poetic handling of the text, the words seeming to generate music as they are enunciated. In the thorny writing of ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’, it is the sheer tonal amplitude that Barton has at her command that impresses, her precision as awesome as her power. The purity of line that she maintains in ‘Um Mitternacht’ coaxes the full measure of ethereal poignancy from the music. As in its four companions, the mezzo-soprano’s intuitive phrasing transforms ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ into a microcosm in which an intimate drama plays out from start to finish within the song’s duration. The Rückert-Lieder are not always a good repertory choice for young singers, but Barton masters their psychological challenges as unflappably as she meets their musical demands.

Barton supplements the Rückert-Lieder with performances of three additional Lieder by Mahler, each of which has its own very specific Zeitgeist. The ambiguity of ‘Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald’ is resolved in this performance with an unmistakable aura of tragedy, the anonymous poet’s final question, ‘Wo ist dein Herzliebster geblieben?’, answered by the dark coloration of the singer’s voice. The clouds continue to gather in Barton’s stormy account of ‘Erinnerung,’ the song’s lyricism flowing on the stream of her caramel-hued tone. Melodically, ‘Scheiden und Meiden’ is one of Mahler’s most appealing Lieder, and Zeger plays the ebullient piano part with the impassioned concentration of Callas singing the cadenza of Lucia’s mad scene. Barton’s singing of this song is representative of her approach to the Mahler selections: the voice expands as the music dictates, verbal inflections follow the dictates of the text, and dynamics are determined by the score.

The tremendous difficulties of the Czech language for non-native speakers likely accounts in large part for the neglect, apart from its most famous constituent, by important singers of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 55 Cigánské melodie. Merely for including these brilliantly tuneful songs on All Who Wander, Barton deserves the gratitude of every listener who appreciates Dvořák’s music, but the quality of her performances of the songs, musically and linguistically, surely qualifies her as an honorary citizen of Dvořák’s native Nelahozeves. Both Adolf Heyduk’s texts and Dvořák’s music were strongly influenced by Czech and Slovak folk song, and the immediacy of Barton’s singing of ‘Má píseň zas mi láskou zní’ bristles with Romany spirit: her song indeed ‘rings out so loud with love.’ The sting of loss that resounds in the conjured tinkling of the triangle in ‘Aj! Kterak trojhranec můj přerozkošně zvoní’ is unexpectedly moving in this performance, and the despair of ‘A les je tichý kolem kol’ is transported from the singer’s heart to the listener’s ears on a torrent of impeccably-managed vocalism. ‘Když mne stará matka zpívat, zpívat učívala,’ frequently translated as ‘Songs my mother taught me,’ is the most familiar of these songs and perhaps the best-known song in the Czech repertory, but there is nothing studied or hackneyed in Barton’s performance of it. The mother’s tears that saturate the text fall in the mezzo-soprano’s singing without diluting the focus of the voice. The brighter sentiments of ‘Struna naladěna’ are also tinged with foreboding, but this and the pair of songs that conclude the set, ‘Široké rukávy a široké gatě’ and ‘Dejte klec jestřábu ze zlata ryzého’ grippingly evoke the unfettered freedom and wild landscapes of gypsy life. As she sings these songs, Barton seems to metamorphose into a Bohemian girl, loosing her hair to the night breeze and unburdening her broken heart through song.

Like Dvořák’s Cigánské melodie, the art songs of Jean Sibelius are far too little known beyond the circle of singers who speak the languages of their texts. Written in the last years of the Nineteenth and the first years of the Twentieth Centuries, the Opera 36 and 37 songs are among the most popular of Sibelius’s contributions to the art song genre—popular, that is, within the confines of listeners who are aware of Sibelius’s songs at all. Progressing inevitably to its cathartic modulation from minor to major, ‘Svarta rosor’ (Op. 36, No. 1) is suffused with anguish, but Barton never indulges the temptation to over-emote. The crashing waves invoked in the text of ‘Säv, säv, susa’ (Op. 36, No. 4) flood Barton’s voice but do not sweep her off course, contrasting tellingly with the delicacy of ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote’ (Op. 37, No. 5), the sorrow of the lines ‘Senast kom hon hem med bleka kinder; Ty de bleknat genom älskarns otro’ gently but profoundly expressed by vocal shading. The vivid imagery of ‘Kyssens hopp’ (Op. 13, No. 2) receives from Barton an interpretation of touchingly naïve idealism. The paean to March snow in ‘Marssnön’ (Op. 36, No. 5) is no less effective as sung here by the mezzo-soprano, the vernal warmth of her timbre meaningfully juxtaposed with the frigidity of the song’s words. Once heard, the tranquil, haunted eloquence with which Barton voices ‘En dröm lik sippans liv så kort uti en vårgrön ängd’ in ‘Var det en dröm?’ (Op. 37, No. 4) cannot be forgotten. As she and Zeger perform them, though, this is true of every line on All Who Wander. The wanderers of these songs find in this artistic partnership the kind of welcoming sanctuary for which the restless soul pines.

Great voices are ever in short supply. Those who endlessly lament that the first sixteen years of the Twenty-First Century have produced no Flagstad, Callas, Tebaldi, or Sutherland are seemingly content to ignore the fact that other generations also failed to cultivate singers with these ladies’ singular abilities. Singers such as these and countless others—Farinelli, Bordoni, Cuzzoni, Pasta, Malibran, Viardot, Falcon, Tamburini, Rubini, Nordica, Caruso, Muzio—were unique phenomena, no more duplicable than Molière, Einstein, and Picasso. Flagstad’s timbre, Callas’s chromatic scales, Tebaldi’s pianissimi, and Sutherland’s trill are artifacts of opera’s past as invaluable as the now-tattered flag that flew over Fort McHenry during a fateful night in the War of 1812, the rudimentary craft that lofted Orville Wright above Kitty Hawk, and Judy Garland’s ruby slippers, but they are not collectively or individually the criteria against which future generations of singers should be judged. To sing Isolde with beauty and integrity reminiscent of Flagstad’s is one thing, but to sing the music precisely as Flagstad sang it, though undeniably desirable, is not only to be a cipher rather than a genuine artist but also to rob Flagstad of her enduring significance. There are aspects of Jamie Barton’s artistry that recall a number of singers of the past: the burnished sound of her lower register recalls Ernestine Schumann-Heink and Clara Butt, her determination recalls Kathleen Ferrier, her dramatic instincts recall Irene Kramarich, and her range and stylistic versatility recall Giulietta Simionato. Whether following the paths of Ferrier in music by Mahler or Simionato in rôles like Giovanna Seymour in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, she is nonetheless emphatically her own artist. All Who Wander is a testament to Barton’s artistic individuality—and, equally importantly, to the depths of her talent. No, the Twenty-First Century has given us no Flagstad or Callas, but what a gift we have been given in Jamie Barton.

CD REVIEW: THE JOMMELLI ALBUM – Arias for Alto (Filippo Mineccia, countertenor; Pan Classics PC 10352)

CD REVIEW: Niccolò Jommelli - THE JOMMELLI ALBUM (Pan Classics PC 10352)NICCOLÒ JOMMELLI (1714 – 1774): The Jommelli Album – Arias for AltoFilippo Mineccia, countertenor; Nereydas; Javier Ulises Illán, conductor [Recorded in Sala Gayarre, Teatro Real de Madrid, and Concert Hall of Escuela Municipal de Música de Pinto, Madrid, Spain, in May and December 2014; Pan Classics PC 10352; 1 CD, 61:01; Available from NAXOS Direct, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Many Twenty-First-Century opera lovers, influenced by the conventional wisdom of opera in the Eighteenth Century having been dominated before 1750 by Händel and after mid-century by Mozart, would likely be surprised to hear composers active after 1740 name as an eminent innovator among their colleagues the Neapolitan master Niccolò Jommelli. Born just north of Naples in the Campania commune of Aversa in 1714, Jommelli was a prodigious boy whose musical abilities were recognized and encouraged from an early age by his well-to-do family. Considering the powerful ecclesiastical and civic patronage that he enjoyed and the espousal of his abilities by as esteemed a composer as Johann Adolf Hasse, it is strange that so little verifiable information about Jommelli’s musical education and early career has survived. Many vital details of his life—his youthful conservatory studies, his presumed tuition under the celebrated Padre Martini, his tenure at Venice’s Ospedale degli Incurabili—can only be cited with footnotes and qualifiers that document the ironic lack of documentation. Like Johann Sebastian Bach and other composers whose biographies are compromised by empty pages, however, acquaintance with Jommelli is best made through his music. In his operatic homages to two of literature’s foremost abandoned heroines, Armida and Dido, Jommelli proved himself to be a musical dramatist of the first order; an order higher, in fact, than a number of composers whose scores have been revived in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries could claim to have achieved. Jommelli deserves champions among today’s best exponents of Eighteenth-Century repertory, and in the context of this engaging new release from Pan Classics, The Jommelli Album, he finds one in Italian countertenor Filippo Mineccia. A bold artist who shares the composer’s theatrical savvy, Mineccia here does for Jommelli what Dame Janet Baker did for Bach and Händel: the performances on this disc adhere to stylistic parameters that would have been familiar to Jommelli but do so in ways that appeal powerfully to the modern listener.

The performance of Jommelli’s Sinfonia a due violine e basso that serves as an interval of sorts, dividing the sequence of arias on The Jommelli Album into two intelligently-planned halves, is indicative of the high levels of virtuosity and expressivity reached in their playing on this disc by the musicians of Spanish period-instrument ensemble Nereydas. Directed by Javier Ulises Illán, the group’s exuberant playing enlivens the spirited numbers and enhances the mood of more contemplative pieces. In their playing of the Sinfonia, the opening Largo smolders with subdued intensity that erupts excitingly in the subsequent Fuga, its subject deftly handled by both composer and musicians. The same building and release of tension shape Nereydas’s performances of the Largo and Allegro movements that constitute the Sinfonia’s second part. The strings further the progress that has been made in historically-informed performances since the early days of scrawny, strident string playing, and the continuo work by harpsichordist María González and Robert Cases and Manuel Minguillón on theorbo and guitar provides a firm foundation for both instruments and voice. Whether the inclusion of the guitar in this music is wholly faithful to the milieux in which the sampled works were first performed may be questioned, but Jommelli’s Neapolitan origins permit this element of creative license, one which detracts nothing but adds a dimension of variety to the orchestral sound. Illán supports the dramatic vignettes that Mineccia creates in each aria with tempi that are expertly judged to showcase music and singer. Wherever his music was performed in the Eighteenth Century, Jommelli is unlikely to have heard playing better than that on this disc.

1753 was a year of great importance in Jommelli’s career as a composer of opera, and that annus mirabilis is represented on The Jommelli Album by arias from a pair of his most accomplished scores. Premièred in Torino, Bajazette was Jommelli’s contribution to the musical legacy of the eponymous Ottoman sultan’s confrontation with the legendary Tamburlaine, an operatic obsession of sorts that extended from Händel’s Tamerlano and Vivaldi’s pasticcio Bajazet to Mysliveček’s Il gran Tamerlano. From Bajazette, Mineccia sings Leone’s exacting ‘Fra il mar turbato,’ a simile aria as exhilaratingly evocative of its tempestuous text as any of Vivaldi’s celebrated arias in a similar vein. Braving the divisions with absolute confidence, Mineccia makes the aria a dramatic as well as a musical tour de force. The ease with which he ascends into his upper register, which occasionally leads to over-emphatic projection of tones at the crests of phrases, is reminiscent of the pioneering singing of Russell Oberlin. Like fellow countertenors Max Emanuel Cenčić and Franco Fagioli, Mineccia possesses the ability to convincingly evince masculinity whilst singing in a high register, and his technique enables him to devote considerable attention to subtleties of text and the composer’s setting of it. Also dating from 1753, in which year it was premièred in Stuttgart, the La clemenza di Tito excerpted here was Jommelli’s first treatment of the popular libretto by Metastasio, to which he would return with revised scores for Ludwigsburg in 1765 and Lisbon in 1771, that was brought to the stage in the Eighteenth Century by an array of composers including Caldara, Hasse, Veracini, Gluck, Mysliveček, and, of course, Mozart. Sesto’s beautiful aria ‘Se mai senti spirarti sul volto’ is sung with eloquence shaped by the countertenor’s focused tones, the composer’s long phrases managed with admirable breath control. The character’s anguish throbs in Mineccia’s delivery of the words ‘son questi gli estremi sospiri del mio fido,’ but the response elicited by his vocalism is untroubled bliss.

First performed in Ludwigsburg in 1768, Jommelli’s La schiava liberata is the source of Don Garzia’s aria ‘Parto, ma la speranza,’ a beguiling number that Minecca sings handsomely, emphasizing the character’s ambivalence by being as attentive to rests as to notes. Here, too, the refinement of his technique is ably put to use, his noble phrasing complemented by his capacity for extending long lines without snatching breaths. Well-concealed discipline is also the core of Mineccia’s spontaneous-sounding performance of the title character’s aria ‘Salda rupe’ from Pelope, premièred in Stuttgart in 1755. The singer’s unpretentiously excellent diction in his native language is a trait that should not be taken for granted, especially in the performance of bravura music like Jommelli’s. Also noteworthy is Mineccia’s unfailing intelligence in embellishment: his ornamentation is restrained and musical, and he eschews the kind of overwrought cadenzas and tasteless above-the-stave interpolations that imperil the integrity of many singers’ performances of Eighteenth-Century repertory. The influence of Jommelli’s acquaintance with Hasse is particularly evident in ‘Salda rupe,’ and Mineccia’s confident, charismatic singing highlights the skill with which his countryman composed for the voice.

It was as a composer for the operatic stage that Jommelli was most appreciated during his lifetime, but he left to posterity a body of liturgically-themed work of equal significance. First performed in 1749 and known to have been admired by the musically astute Englishmen Charles Burney and Sir James Edward Smith, La passione di nostro signore Gesù Cristo is a superbly-crafted score, a setting of another of Metastasio’s widely-traveled texts that merits recognition as the equal of better-known versions by Caldara, Salieri, and Paisiello. Mineccia here sings Giovanni’s arias ‘Come a vista’ and ‘Ritornerà fra voi,’ both of which he distinguishes with elegant, unaffected vocalism. The music is overtly operatic, not unlike Caldara’s forward-looking stilo galante, but Mineccia’s singing is noticeably more intimate here than in the opera arias. As he articulates them, the arias are effectively contrasted, their differing sentiments easily discerned by the listener.

Dating from 1750, Jommelli’s Cantata per la Natività della Beatissima Vergine is another work of high quality that should be more frequently performed, its lyricism no less captivating than that of Pergolesi’s familiar Stabat mater. Hypnotically propelled by guitar continuo, Speranza’s aria ‘Pastor son’io’ receives from Mineccia and Nereydas a reading of undiluted piety, one that exudes precisely what the archetype that utters it symbolizes: hope. Mineccia’s voice is here at its most purely beautiful, the seamless integration of his registers facilitating the poise of his singing. Jommelli’s 1751 Lamentazioni per il mercoledì santo perpetuated a tradition of music composed for Holy Week that was prevalent in Italy throughout the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, and the structure of the aria ‘O vos omnes’ suggests that Jommelli was aware of Alessandro Scarlatti’s standard-setting works for the Roman rites of settimana santa. Jommelli’s music combines simplicity and sophistication, and Mineccia sings it accordingly. Communication of the text is again the central focus of the singer’s endeavors, and he succeeds in conveying the sincere devotion of Jommelli’s writing.

In the course of The Jommelli Album, there are a few suspect pitches and instances in which passagework is attacked slightly too aggressively, but there is not one moment on this disc in which anything is faked or approximated. For many observers, Niccolò Jommelli’s name is likely to remain alongside those of throngs of his contemporaries as a notch on the timeline of opera between Händel and Mozart, but with The Jommelli Album Filippo Mineccia has given listeners a disc that makes Jommelli’s name one to remember.

03 October 2016

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | October 2016: Michael Nyman — THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT (M. Treviño, R. Sjöwall, R. MacPherson; NAXOS 8.660398)

IN REVIEW: Michael Nyman - THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT (NAXOS 8.660398)MICHAEL NYMAN (born 1944): The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a HatMatthew Treviño (Dr. P), Rebecca Sjöwall (Mrs. P), Ryan MacPherson (Neurologist); Nashville Opera; Dean Williamson, conductor [Recorded at Ocean Way Nashville, Tennessee, USA, 23 – 25 May 2015; NAXOS 8.660398; 1 CD, 58:08; Available from NAXOS Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Not even the most eloquent words can fully express the enormity of the extent to which human existence has changed in the seventy-one years since the end of World War Two. As we spin on our appointed orbital path, technology enables us to know precisely where we are and from whence we came at every moment, but we often seem unable or unwilling to recall, in a figurative sense, who we are or ought to be. From this collective identity crisis, a product of the horrors of war and Holocaust and the struggles of recovery and reform, arose the Theatre of the Absurd, a literary movement that reflected—and continues to reflect—the dissociative inclinations of modern civilization. Adapted by the composer, librettist Christopher Rawlence, and Michael Morris from British-born neurologist Oliver Sacks’s groundbreaking 1985 case study of visual agnosia, a peculiar condition that affects sufferers’ capacities to visually identify known items without compromising their actual vision or memory, Michael Nyman’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is a startling, thought-provoking parable of man’s frequent inability to connect with himself and the world that he inhabits, a musical extension of the Theatre of the Absurd that recalls the psychological penetration of Edward Albee’s plays. Celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the opera’s 1986 première at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, this superb NAXOS release documents a realization of Nyman’s concentrated drama for Nashville Opera by visionary director John Hoomes, whose erudition recreated the opera within a discernibly contemporary but ultimately timeless context. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is a narrative of intensely personal, intimately-scaled trials and triumphs, but the performance on this disc poignantly makes the tribulations of Nyman’s three characters those of every listener.

​Expertly led by conductor Dean Williamson, the talented musicians from the Nashville Opera Orchestra—violinists Dave Davidson and Conni Ellisor, violist Simona Rusu, cellists Michael Samis and Sari Reist, harpist Mary Alice Hoepfinger, and pianist Amy Tate Williams—fill every bar of Nyman’s score with shimmering sounds that powerfully impart the dramatic crux of each scene. The purpose of every ostinato is here made apparent, and the billowing, vocalise-like cascades of the singer’s melodic lines are paralleled and perfectly supported by the musicians’ playing. Every part is integral to the whole, but Hoepfinger and Williams give especially strong performances of very difficult music. Williamson paces the opera with such immediacy that the performance’s fifty-eight minutes dart past, but passages that demand a slowing of the dramatic propulsion unfailingly receive it. Staging The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in Nashville was a brave venture, as it would be for virtually any American opera company, but, weighing the evidence of this recording, is there any score in the standard repertory that Nashville Opera might have performed at a higher level? When not even a well-executed Carmen or La bohème is guaranteed to fill seats, how much more fulfilling it is to have a performance of this quality of less-known repertory. Both the enthusiastic audience and critical reception for Hoomes’s production and the caliber of this recording confirm that Nashville is as nurturing a home for grand opera as for the Grand Ole Opry.

​Nyman’s style in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is unapologetically minimalist, but the repetitive figurations in the orchestra do not stifle an air of mesmerizing lyricism. As in Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, melodic fragments occur throughout Nyman’s score and are assembled by the composer into an overall thematic profile that permeates each of the opera’s scenes. Cinematic in scope, the opera progresses like a musical My Dinner with Andre, words guiding the chronicle’s course. In the opera’s ​​​​Prologue, which in a dramatic sense is not unlike the opening scene of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, the Sacks-like neurologist of tenor Ryan MacPherson is introduced with music and text of detachment, the clinician preserving professional courtesy in his initial description of the case under his examination. Whether sung or spoken, MacPherson’s crystal-clear diction is an asset throughout the performance, and he makes the neurologist’s utterances sound credibly academic but never cold or unfeeling.

When the object of the neurologist’s scrutiny and his wife, Dr. and Mrs. P, are met in the subsequent scene, ‘​The First Examination,’ MacPherson becomes an active participant in the story rather than an objective observer, and the added warmth with which MacPherson infuses his singing translates this shift in perspectives into sound. Portraying Dr. P with charm and sympathetic humility, bass Matthew Treviño immediately earns the listener’s attention and affection. The surreal difficulties endured by Mrs. P are brought into sharp focus by the singing of soprano Rebecca Sjöwall, her voice taking on a steely edge as her vocal lines climb. The mounting vexation of ‘Traffic,’ ‘The Shoe,’ and ‘The Slides’ ripples through the music, and the singers and Nashville Opera musicians channel this vehemence into their performances. In both voices and instruments, the tenderness that alters the atmosphere in ‘The River’ and ‘The Dressing Ritual’ prompts an outpouring of expressivity that thrusts the hearts of the characters and of the opera itself to the surface.

It is not merely in terms of its placement in the score that ‘The House Call’ is the opera’s core. With his astute use of the descant of ‘Ich grolle nicht’ from Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe, Nyman increases and intensifies the link between the isolation resulting from Dr. P’s condition and artists’ eternal combat with misunderstanding and rejection. The sounds that emerge from ‘The Solids’ and ‘The Photographs’ evoke the tangible aspects of life, objects that can be handled and hoarded, while the relentless rhythmic pulse of ‘The Rose,’ ‘The Glove,’ and ‘The Chess Game’ conjure recollections of responses to internal and external stimuli, rendering the inexplicable circumstances of Dr. P’s malady stunningly comprehensible. Not least in the manipulation of Schumann’s melody, Treviño’s singing in this scene is unstintingly powerful, his ruggedly attractive timbre deployed with full cognizance of the ways in which the basic sound of the voice influences the ways in which the words greet listeners’ ears. At their most challenging for the singers, Nyman’s vocal lines are always written with a confident grasp of the capabilities of human voices, a quality that many contemporary composers have never bothered to acquire, and the fruits of this gift markedly broaden the appeal of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Both ‘Visual Memory’ and ‘The Street’ contribute unforgettably to the cumulative effectiveness of ‘The Test,’ the scene in which Nyman’s invention is arguably at its most original. In the ‘Paintings as Pathology?’, too, the composer’s innovation is spellbinding, his setting of text in ‘An Argument’ revealing the philosophical depths of his musical and dramatic sensibilities. In these more than in any other scenes in the opera, MacPherson, Treviño, and Sjöwall interact with the intuitive collaboration of chamber musicians. Theirs is the kind of give-and-take coexistence that every operatic ensemble deserves but so few receive. The insights that their cooperative spirit yields gives ‘The Prescription’ an aura of authoritativeness that the same passage in the first recording of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The artists in that performance were no less committed to the opera, but MacPherson, Treviño, and Sjöwall bring these symbolism-laden characters to life with daring familiarity. The earlier Dr. and Mrs. P convince, but Treviño’s and Sjöwall’s portrayals enthrall, their singing not always polished or perfectly-tuned but never debilitatingly stilted or studied.

In the Epilogue, the subdued desolation of ‘The Prognosis’ is movingly evinced by the neurologist’s statement of ‘I cannot tell you what is wrong,’ and Treviño and Sjöwall react to MacPherson’s words with singing of meticulously-judged fortitude, their delivery never overwhelming the text or Nyman’s music. Speaking with exemplary articulation that never seems artificial, MacPherson utters ‘I think that music, for him, took the place of the image’ with utter simplicity that suggests that this migration from one sensitivity to another is second nature. Sjöwall’s vocalism grows more astringent in the opera’s final minutes, aptly suggesting Mrs. P’s agitation and anxiety. That there is no true resolution of the situation in which Nyman’s characters are embroiled is the only valid ending for the opera: a concerted finale of any sort would seem mechanical and contrived. As interpreted by MacPherson, Treviño, and Sjöwall, the sole trajectory that is faithful to the psyches of the people they create is carrying on, and that requires no ceremony or musical fanfare.

In a time in which the sanctity of life has been superseded by glamorized violence and children murder their peers because they believe that fictional characters demand it, the bizarre situations and twisted realities of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, keystones of the Twentieth Century’s literary response to teetering on the edge of annihilation, no longer shock and bewilder as they once did. The absurdities of these seminal works have been exchanged for new, even less fathomable ones, malaises that afflict society rather than populating scenes in plays and pages in books. Humanity in the Twenty-First Century is a cyclone of discontent, denial, and depravity that would challenge the analytical prowess of Sigmund Freud, a tempest that rages in Michael Nyman’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat with disquieting ferocity. Perhaps the greatest achievement of this NAXOS recording is how enticing it makes chaos sound.

02 October 2016

CD REVIEW: Anton Bruckner — SYMPHONY NO. 2 IN C MINOR, WAB 102 (Orchestre Métropolitain, Y. Nézet-Séguin; ATMA Classique ACD2 2708)

IN REVIEW: Anton Bruckner - SYMPHONY NO. 2 IN C MINOR, WAB 102 (ATMA Classique ACD2 2708)ANTON BRUCKNER (1824 – 1896): Symphony No. 2 in C minor, WAB 102 (Robert Haas’s composite edition, published in 1938, based on Bruckner’s 1877 version, with features from previous versions)—Orchestre Métropolitain; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor [Recorded in Maison symphonique, Montréal, Québec, Canada, in September 2015; ATMA Classique ACD2 2708; 1 CD, time; Available from ATMA Classique, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Since the completion of its earliest version in 1872 and its première by the Wiener Philharmoniker under the composer’s direction a year later, Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor (WAB 102) has been a source of confusion, frustration, and elation for conductors, musicians, musicologists, and music lovers. Not published until two decades after the completion of the first version, the score underwent extensive revisions, wrought first by the composer himself in the years prior to his death in 1896 and then by scholars who struggled to make sense of the material produced by Bruckner’s reconsiderations. Recorded in well-balanced, spacious sound that conveys a perceptible sense of the fine acoustic ambiance of Montréal’s Maison symphonique, this ATMA Classique performance of Symphony No. 2 by Orchestre Métropolitain and internationally-renowned conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin continues a commitment to Bruckner’s Symphonies that has thus far produced a series of warmly-received recordings that, alongside his traversal of Robert Schumann’s symphonies for Deutsche Grammophon, have confirmed Nézet-Séguin’s standing as a significant interpreter of Nineteenth-Century symphonic repertory. Among these lauded recordings, the present account of Symphony No. 2 is the most obviously personal of Nézet-Séguin’s recorded Bruckner outings to date. As he is a boundlessly vivacious young man with a smile as bright as the Montréal skyline by night, melancholy would seem as foreign to the conductor’s temperament as rampant arrogance was to the composer’s, but Nézet-Séguin ignores none of the score’s shadows. Still, this is not music of intergalactic tragedy, and this performance deals as successfully with subtle humor as with starkness. There are no definitive answers to the questions posed by Symphony No. 2, but those proposed by Nézet-Séguin and the Montréal musicians on this disc are exceptionally persuasive.

The principal quandaries into which a performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2 wades are questions of the order of the score’s four movements and the matter of a critical horn solo in the final pages of the Adagio movement that was declared unplayable by an early would-be exponent of the part and was subsequently reworked for clarinet and violas. Like Bach’s Passions and many of Händel’s operas and oratorios, a performance of Symphony No. 2 with absolute fidelity to Bruckner’s final thoughts on the score is at best an elusive chimera. For this performance, Nézet-Séguin and his Orchestre Métropolitain colleagues use a composite version of the score that amalgamates Robert Haas’s 1938 edition, primarily based upon the composer’s 1877 revision, with elements from Bruckner’s original structure and later revisions. The work that comes to life in this version possesses greater cohesion than has often been the case with the symphony, and its dimensions here benefit from increased symmetry. The tightening of the score that Bruckner achieved in 1877 is combined with the freshness of his initial invention, producing a free-flowing construction in which the music never hinders the conductor’s efforts at maintaining consistent momentum during thematic development. Bruckner was an avowed devotee of Wagner, but his own motivic writing is more redolent of the Biergarten than of Bayreuth: the links among the movements of Symphony No. 2, clear-sightedly examined but not exaggerated in this performance, are more episodic than literal. This reading wholly avoids falling into the trap of ridiculously treating the symphony’s four movements as a miniature Der Ring des Nibelungen.

As an interpreter of Bruckner’s symphonies, Nézet-Séguin is neither a cupcakes-and-kittens optimist who lathers the music in sentimentality that is never fully rinsed away nor a fatalistic firebrand who scorches and singes the music indiscriminately. This is especially true in this performance of Symphony No. 2, which he paces with a pragmatism not unlike his approach to Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. Mahler, who appreciated and espoused Bruckner’s music, assessed the older composer as a musical deity with a pronounced vein of imbecilic tendencies, and if this seems more indelicate than Mahler likely intended it to be it is nonetheless an apt analysis of the man who emerges from Bruckner’s scores. There are undeniable absurdities in Bruckner’s music, but they are fewer in Symphony No. 2 than in other works. The Orchestre Métropolitain musicians respond to Nézet-Séguin’s leadership of the symphony’s opening ‘Ziemlich schnell’ movement with palpable understanding, the string playing, wonderfully reliable throughout the performance, granting the composer’s dense writing a welcome buoyancy. The intelligently-judged balances among the orchestra’s sections that Nézet-Séguin and the musicians achieve provide a setting in which the beauty of Bruckner’s music can be appreciated without longing for this or that phrase to be more or less prominent in the soundscape.

The tempi that Nézet-Séguin sets in the Adagio (‘Feierlich, etwas bewegt’) and Scherzo (marked ‘Schnell’—‘Mäßig schnell’ in some editions—by the composer) movements allow the symphony’s expressive energy to evolve at a cumulative pace that draws the listener’s attention into details of orchestration and phrasing without jeopardizing contemplation of the work’s broader design. In the Adagio, there are no concerns about the capabilities of any of Orchestre Métropolitain’s personnel. This is music of dark moods, but conductor and orchestra refuse to wallow in them, preferring to get on with performing the notes before them rather than indulging in the dangerous business of questioning the artistic impetus of the composer’s instructions instead of merely following them. To say that Nézet-Séguin takes the time to fully ponder the expressive implications of Bruckner’s harmonic progressions is not to suggest that the performance is at all ponderous. There is little true jocularity to mine in playing the Scherzo, but its—no one tell Bruckner!—almost Brahmsian ambivalence is tellingly exposed. A heightened awareness of the novelty of Bruckner’s part writing is facilitated by the robust but flexible orchestral textures that Nézet-Séguin encourages: in the Scherzo’s boldest moments, not only Mahler but Schönberg, Webern, Berg, Schulhoff, and Krenek also appear on the horizon, foreshadowed in music that unmistakably owes a debt of gratitude to Beethoven’s late string quartets.

The symphony’s final movement, designated ‘Mehr schnell’ by the composer, is a sort of cabaletta to the scene and two-part aria that precede it. Here, Nézet-Séguin’s leadership occasionally sounds cautious rather than confident, but a measure of caution is indicative of a commendable drive to conserve emotional electricity and preserve musicality even in the most frenetic passages. If the movement’s raw impact is marginally reduced, the enhanced refinement—a quality not often cited among the principal virtues of Bruckner’s music—that Nézet-Séguin’s approach reveals is ample compensation. In the symphony’s final moments, Orchestre Métropolitain’s greatest assets are deployed. Like their conductor’s endeavors, the musicians’ playing weds youthful exuberance with the assurance of experience. Collectively, they are as attentive to the smiles as to the scowls in Bruckner’s music, and their performance of Symphony No. 2 is convincingly grand on a scale appropriate to the score.

Offered as a bonus to listeners who purchase this release in digital format is an unabashedly Romantic performance of Leopold Stokowski’s elegiac arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Komm, süßer Tod, komm selge Ruh’ (BWV 478). The flamboyant Stokowski’s orchestration of Bach’s hauntingly beautiful music is surprisingly sensitive, and Nézet-Séguin conducts the piece with complementary intensity and restraint that honor both Bach and Stokowski. With a modern-instrument band like Orchestre Métropolitain and an ensemble of dedicated singers, Nézet-Séguin would likely be an ideal champion of Felix Mendelssohn’s edition of Bach’s Matthäus-Passion.

Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson are unlikely visitors to a review of a recording of a Bruckner symphony, but the advice of their ‘Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys’ might have served the curmudgeonly Bruckner equally well as an enjoinder to thwart youngsters’ intentions to become composers or conductors. His was a career complicated by critical hostility, some of which he unintentionally instigated, amorous disappointments, and bouts with depression, but the latter-day image of Bruckner desolately perched in his Linz organ loft, a man apart from his surroundings, is likely no more accurate a depiction of his life than accounts of lifelong puerility are of Mozart’s. Symphony No. 2 is neither Bruckner’s best nor his most radical work, but the debate that it has spawned among scholars validates its significance in its composer’s and the wider symphonic canons. Often battered by the musical establishment of which he was a reluctant part, the introverted Bruckner might well have advised an eager young man with Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s gifts to pursue greatness as a doctor, lawyer, or such, but this is a performance of his Symphony No. 2 that would surely have inspired him to press a coin into the conductor’s hand as a humble, heartfelt ‘Vielen Dank.’